Urban Renewal

Urban Renewal (similar to Urban Regeneration in British English) is a controversial US program of land re-development in areas of moderate to high density urban land use. This process began an intense phase in the late 1940s and continues to the present day. It has a major impact on the urban landscape. Similar mechanisms play an important role in the history and demographics of cities around the world, including; Beijing, China, Melbourne, Victoria; Saint John, New Brunswick; Glasgow, Scotland; Boston, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; and Bilbao, Spain. Commonly cited examples include Canary Wharf, in London, and Cardiff in Wales.

1999 photograph looking northeast on Chicago's now demolished Cabrini-Green housing project, one of many urban renewal efforts.

Urban renewal is extremely controversial, and typically involves the destruction of businesses, the relocation of people, and the use of eminent domain (known as Compulsory Purchase in the UK) as a legal instrument to reclaim private property for City-initiated development projects. The justifications often used for Urban Renewal include the "renewal" of residential slums, blighted commercial and industrial areas. In the 1960's James Baldwin famously dubbed Urban Renewal "Negro Removal"..
In the second half of the 20th century, renewal often resulted in the creation of urban sprawl and vast areas of cities being demolished and replaced by freeways and expressways, housing projects, and vacant lots, some of which still remain vacant at the beginning of the 21st century.
Urban Renewal's effect on actual revitalization is a subject of intense debate. It is seen by proponents as an economic engine, and by opponents as a regressive mechanism for enriching the wealthy at the expense of taxpayers and the poor. It carries a high cost to existing communities, and in many cases resulted in the destruction of vibrant—if run-down —neighborhoods.
Urban renewal in its original form has been called a failure by many urban planners and civic leaders, and has since been reformulated with a focus on redevelopment of existing communities. However, many cities link the revitalization of the central business district and gentrification of residential neighborhoods to earlier urban renewal programs. Over time, urban renewal evolved into a policy based less on destruction and more on renovation and investment, and today is an integral part of many local governments, often combined with small and big business incentives. But even in this adapted form, Urban Renewal projects are still widely accused of abuse and corruption.


Urban renewal goes back to the work of Robert Moses in the redevelopment of New York City and New York State from the 1930s into the 1970s. Moses directed the construction of new bridges, highways, housing projects, and public parks. Moses was a controversial figure, both for his single-minded zeal and for its impact on New York City, as sweeping as Haussmann's was in Paris. Moses is responsible for most major traffic arteries in the city and for its largest parks, except Central Park and Prospect Park.

Urban Renewal in the United States

Redlining and segregation
Main article: Redlining
Redlining began with the National Housing Act of 1934 which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to improve housing conditions and standards, and later led to the formation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While it was designed to develop housing for poor residents of urban areas, that act also required cities to target specific areas and neighborhoods for different racial groups, and certain areas of cities were not eligible to receive loans at all. This meant that ethnic minorities could only secure mortgages in certain areas, and resulted in a large increase in the residential racial segregation in the United States.
This was followed by the Housing Act of 1937, which created the U.S. Housing Agency and the nation's first public housing program—the Low Rent Public Housing Program. This program began the large public housing projects that later became one of the hallmarks of urban renewal in the United States: it provided funding to local governments to build new public housing, but required that slum housing be demolished prior to any construction.

Postwar problems and suburban growth
In 1944, the GI Bill (officially the Serviceman's Readjustment Act) guaranteed Veterans Administration (VA) mortgages to veterans under favorable terms, which fueled suburbanization after the end of World War II, as places like Levittown, New York, Warren, Michigan and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles were transformed from farmland into cities occupied by tens of thousands of families in a few short years.

Housing Act of 1949
Title One of the Housing Act of 1949 kickstarted the "urban renewal" program that would reshape American cities. The Act provided federal funding to cities to cover the cost of acquiring areas of cities perceived to be "slums." (The Federal government paid 2/3 of the cost of acquiring the site, called the "write down," while local governments paid the remaining 1/3.) Those sites were then given to private developers to construct new housing. The phrase used at the time was "urban redevelopment." "Urban renewal" was a phrase popularized with the passage of the 1954 Housing Act, which made these projects more enticing to developers, by among other things, providing FHA-backed mortgages.

Urban destruction
Under the powerful influence of multimillionaire R.K. Mellon, Pittsburgh became the first major city to undertake a modern urban-renewal program in May 1950. Pittsburgh was infamous around the world as one of the dirtiest and most economically depressed cities, and seemed ripe for urban renewal. A large section of downtown at the heart of the city was demolished, converted to parks, office buildings, and a sports arena and renamed the Golden Triangle in what was universally recognized as a major success. Other neighborhoods were also subjected to urban renewal, but with mixed results. Some areas did improve, while other areas, such as East Liberty and Lower Hill declined following ambitious projects that shifted traffic patterns, blocked streets to vehicular traffic, isolated or divided neighborhoods with highways, and removed large numbers of ethnic and minority residents.[citations needed]
In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act gave state and federal government complete control over new highways, and often they were routed directly through vibrant urban neighborhoods—isolating or destroying many—since the focus of the program was to bring traffic in and out of the central cores of cities as expeditiously as possible and nine out of every ten dollars spent came from the federal government. This resulted in a serious degradation of the tax bases of many cities, isolated entire neighborhoods, and meant that existing commercial districts were bypassed by the majority of commuters.[citations needed]
Segregation continued to increase as communities were displaced and many African Americans and Latinos were left with no other option than moving into public housing while Whites moved to the suburbs in ever-greater numbers.[citations needed]
In Boston, one of the country's oldest cities, almost a third of the old city was demolished—including the historic West End—to make way for a new highway, low- and moderate-income high-rises (which eventually became luxury housing), and new government and commercial buildings. Later, this would be seen a tragedy by many residents and urban planners, and one of the centerpieces of the redevelopment—Government Center—is still considered an example of the excesses of urban renewal.

Reactions against urban renewal
In 1961, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the first—and strongest—critiques of contemporary large-scale urban renewal. However, it would still be a few years before organized movements began to oppose urban renewal.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act removed racial deed restrictions on housing. This began desegregation of residential neighborhoods, but redlining continued to mean that real estate agents continued to steer ethnic minorities to certain areas. The riots that swept cities across the country from 1965 to 1967 damaged or destroyed additional areas of major cities—most drastically in Detroit during the 12th Street Riot.
By the 1970s many major cities developed opposition to the sweeping urban-renewal plans for their cities. In Boston, community activists halted construction of the proposed Southwest Expressway—but only after a three-mile long stretch of land had been cleared. In San Francisco, Joseph Alioto was the first mayor to publicly repudiate the policy of urban renewal, and with the backing of community groups, forced the state to end construction of highways through the heart of the city. Between 1956 and 1966, more than 12% of the people in Atlanta lost their homes to urban renewal[citation needed], expressways, and a downtown building boom turned the city into the showcase of the New South in the 1970s and 1980s.

From "urban renewal" to "community development"

Some of the policies around urban renewal began to change under President Lyndon Johnson and the War on Poverty, and in 1968, the Housing and Urban Development Act and The New Communities Act of 1968 guaranteed private financing for private entrepreneurs to plan and develop new communities. Subsequently, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 established the Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG) which began in earnest the focus on redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and properties, rather than demolition of substandard housing and economically depressed areas.
Currently, a mix of renovation, selective demolition, commercial development, and tax incentives is most often used to revitalize urban neighborhoods. Though not without its critics—gentrification is still controversial, and often results in familiar patterns of poorer residents being priced out of urban areas into suburbs or more depressed areas of cities—urban renewal in its present form is generally regarded as a great improvement over the policies of the middle part of the 20th century. Some programs, such as that administered by Fresh Ministries and Operation New Hope in Jacksonville, Florida attempt to develop communities, while at the same time combining highly favorable loan programs with financial literacy education so that poorer residents may still be able to afford their restored neighborhoods. Other programs, such as that in Castleford in the UK and known as The Castleford Project seek to establish a process of urban renewal which enables local citizens to have greater control and ownership of the direction of their community and the way in which it overcomes market failure. This supports important themes in urban renewal today, such as participation,sustainability and trust - and government acting as advocate and 'enabler', rather than an instrument of command and control.
During the 1990s the concept of culture-led regeneration gained ground. Examples most often cited as successes include Temple Bar in Dublin where tourism was attracted to a bohemian 'cultural quarter', Barcelona where the 1992 Olympics provided a catalyst for infrastructure improvements and the redevelopment of the water front area, and Bilbao where the building of a new art museum was the focus for a new business district around the city's derelict dock area. The approach has become very popular in the UK due to the availability of lottery funding for capital projects and the vibrancy of the cultural and creative sectors. However, while the arrival of Tate Modern in the London borough of Southwark may be heralded as a catalyst to economic revival in its surrounding neighborhood, some civic authorities in the UK - for instance Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead have been accused of investing in cultural facilities at the cost of other programs and projects.

Long-term implications

While urban renewal never lived up to the hopes of its original proponents, it has played an undeniably important role in cities throughout the United States, England, and many other nations. It has been hotly debated by politicians, urban planners, civic leaders, and current and former residents of the areas where urban renewal took place in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It has brought economic and cultural development to many cities, but often at a great cost to low-income and minority communities living in them. It has also played a role in the economic devastation faced by many of the major industrial cities in the United States since the 1940s. Urban renewal continues to evolve as successes and failures are examined and new models of development and redevelopment are tested and implemented.
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